Tradition and innovation: the recipe for success

First of all, what about your professional background? You hold an MBA with Dean’s List Distinction from INSEAD (France, Singapore) and a MS of Electronics Engineering and you have 17 years of digital innovation experience across three continents (Europe, US & Asia), encompassing the roles of designer, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, management consultant and general manager. How did you land to the publishing world?

Book publishing is just my current industry and it’s not bound to be the last one. I professionally grew up as innovator and not as a publisher. Electronics Engineering and MBA are not the typical qualifications in any publishing powerhouse. In fact, I don’t know anyone in my role with my background. Before entering the publishing industry in 2010, as consultant first, I’ve been working on innovating products, services, processes and organizations in diverse industries such as: aerospace, semiconductor, internet, pharma&biotech, home appliances, apparel, logistics. In 2010 the book publishing industry in Italy was ground zero from an innovation standpoint but it was ready for change. I happened to find a very strong interest from book publishers to have people like myself leading their very first wave of innovation.

Only in October 2010, RCS started to sell its first few hundreds ebooks. Now they are almost 5.000 and growing. In the past three years we have built an entire new business from scratch, that operate as an autonomous division: from production to sales and marketing, including finance, accounting, authors’ rights, taxes, commercial partnerships, IT systems, quality and so on. In 2013 we grew our ebook revenues by over 80%, about 10pp better than the largest competitor in Italy. This is just half of a massively successful story. The other half is even more exciting: we have built the capabilities to run serial world-first or country-first innovations since the summer of 2012. Let me mention just a selection of them:

As anyone can imagine, serial innovation doesn’t happen by chance in the same place for a long time. It’s the team and the skills, the attitudes, the competences, the fearless environment that make it happen over and over again.

According to you, which are right now the skills that publishing houses cannot miss to integrate within their companies in order to achieve better results?

Any technical skills can be learnt, acquired, insourced or delegated to some external partner. But you need to have the right people with the right motivations, mindset and empowerment. Gifted people with strong willingness to change, pragmatists and orientated to tangible/measurable results. In a nutshell, people with the ability to continuously learn and challenge their knowledge and that of the people they interact with. In fact being able to effectively deal with technology partners is getting more and more important. You can hardly establish successful partnerships with any technology provider if you don’t speak the same language, share common-goals, can’t negotiate a fair deal or can’t manage the agreed projects and long-term relationships. So publishers need not only to be effectively able to deal with authors, readers, agents, media players and booksellers, but also with ICT players.

What about the digital reorganization of RCS Libri? Which are the principles which guided this process?

For any longstanding publishing powerhouse, it’s important to keep together two opposite values: tradition and innovation. You can’t just forget who you have been since 80 years. Your core assets are your people, your values, your authors and your partners. On the other side if you don’t open yourself to a new culture and competences you will hardly be able to make significant progresses. Therefore people from outside the industry are pivotal to create a change momentum by building a new environment from scratch.

My recipe? Young people, very bright and passionate, strong readers, no fear to fail and digitally native (professionally speaking). A small dream team of pioneers, doers and evangelists that can empower that traditional organization to think, dare and do the unthinkable.

Which criteria guide RCS in the choice of the technological partners? What about the relationship with start-ups?

As you can imagine, we can’t really disclose the details of our criteria. Let’s talk about the attitude of a world-leading innovator. Be pro-active and don’t just wait for a supplier knocking on the door. Go and fish them according to needs. World leading innovators often are far ahead of what most technological partners have to offer. For this reason we also take start-ups very seriously. Start-ups such as PubCoder for the immersive narrative e-books or 20lines for BigJump, the first ever online literary contest with Amazon are cases in point. Start-ups often have more to offer, in term of innovation potential, than a standard well-established technological supplier. Of course, as any other big publishing powerhouse, we do also have important relationships with well-established technological partners, since we are getting more and more empowered by standard ICT solutions (ERP, CMS, DAM, DB, BI and so on). These solutions are standard-practices or business basic necessities, such as utilities, offices, paper etc. Such solutions, though, do often not constitute innovation and therefore hardly provide any competitive differentiation point. Of course if you don’t have them, you risk to be out the game pretty soon. It’s like playing soccer on ice naked and with bare feet. You face high chances to lose, even if you have Messi and Ronaldo in your team. Having the right equipment, though, doesn’t guarantee any significant success.

“What can technological partners do for a publishing powerhouse to enable an unmatchable and sustainable competitive advantage in front of its competitors?” This is a very hard question to answer. Of course publishers shall be capable to pose the right questions to the right partners and pick the right answers. Very easy to say, very hard to do. In fact, Innovation is of the most daunting, challenging and awesome jobs on Earth. That is why I personally enjoy it so much.

Where do you think that training should focus? How do you train your employees?

The job is the most effective and efficient way of continuously leaning. Our innovation projects as well as our daily activities are meant to be our one-of-a-kind knowledge gym.

As any other big publishing powerhouse, we run specific training activities with internal and external teachers. Training occurs also by participating to external workshops, attending conferences, or acquiring training-packages from outside. Overall a mix of different sources, but mainly centered on training on the job with the right people. Don’t forget you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

The human capital is key. For innovation even more. The willingness and ability to constantly learn, unlearn and relearn is way more important than any kind of specific content/format in any training. As Alvin Toffler once put it: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ” This is even more true for knowledge workers, such as us all.

However I would suggest to put more attention on capabilities in today’s knowledge-driven society rather than just in trainings.

Remember the bottom-up hierarchy of the D-I-K-W pyramid:

  • Data as basis for Information
  • Information as basis for Knowledge
  • Knowledge as basis for Wisdom.

Actually it doesn’t end here, as Wisdom is the basis for Creativity and Creativity is the basis for Innovation. You need to stay at the top of the pyramid if you want to unleash Innovation by fostering Creativity through Wisdom and Knowledge.

If you in-source tech-knowledge from reliable tech partners and let them deal with the bottom of the pyramid you can focus on the top.

Then it becomes clear what kind of people, attitudes and skills are necessary and only then think perhaps about trainings, if necessary at all. Don’t kid yourself with training programs full of trendy buzzwords.



The opinions expressed in this article are Marcello Vena’s own at personal level and might not reflect the view of his current employer (RCS Libri). Nothing expressed here shall be deemed as an official statement or endorsement by RCS Libri. Twitter @marcellovena.

Interview by Elisa Molinari (Associazione Italiana Editori)

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